Movie: Robot Jox (1989)

This was the last movie I watched on Arrow Video’s blu-ray boxed set showcasing five films Empire Pictures produced in the 1980’s.  Though they were of different genres (OK, two: sci-fi and/or horror), and made by a few different directors and other creative personnel, these had a weird aesthetic that seemed to suggest more connective tissue between them than there really was. 

The last movie on the set is 1989’s Robot Jox.  It would be easy to mistake it for Arena, the movie immediately preceding this.  That movie had different species of aliens pit fighting on a space station.  Jox has people in a post-apocalyptic future manning one hundred foot tall robots in staged fights.  Fortunately, Jox is as good as Arena was trash.  It is as fun as the other film was tedious, as inventive as the other was uninspired.

I didn’t realize the world needed a low-budget, live-action Transformers movies over a decade before Michael Bay decided to make that series of bloated, CGI-leaden, not-very-spectaculars.  This older film uses practical effects such as stop-motion and miniatures, and it is all the better for it.  I may have noticed the strings on occasion, but I chose to pretend I hadn’t seen them.  The only way to enjoy this film is to turn your brain off during it.  You’ll be glad you did.

If you don’t, you might find yourself asking some nagging questions.  Questions such as, “Why do the pilots of the robots do all that training?  I mean, it isn’t like they are doing hand-to-hand combat.”  You probably also don’t want to ask what benefit it is to one of the fighters that he has near-superhuman strength.  To me, that only seems like a potential detriment, as I can imagine them accidentally crushing their machine’s controls.  For that matter, why even have humans controlling the fighting bots from within them?  Isn’t this something that could be done remotely?  See, it’s questions like those which are going to snuff your potential for enjoying this picture. 

Once you have suspended your disbelief, you’re ready for a movie where the nations of the world have consolidated into two superpowers that now only settle disputes in the robot arena.  Up for stakes in the battles when we enter the picture is the state of Alaska.  Paul Koslo fights for what seems to be most of the eastern hemisphere, while Gary Graham fights for the western world.  Graham’s character is named Achilles, which I thought was an odd choice.  One character says, “This is Achilles’s last fight”, and I was left wondering why they didn’t say it was Achilles’s last stand.  You see?  Even more reasons to turn your brain off for this.

If there’s one thing Achilles does, it is to behave like a heel.  The government has a program to breed genetic super-soldiers and, when he is given a cup into which he is to make a “contribution” to the bank, he smirks and asks, “Can we just skip the middleman and make a direct deposit?”  This is said while he is checking out Anne-Marie Johnson, who is one of this new breed of fighters.  These are called the “Toobees”, which only had me wondering if those who have fought are the “Not-Toobees”.  The idea of a female warrior is much derided, which I didn’t understand since, once again, this is somebody who will be operating a giant robot.  Not sure how physicality really impacts that ability.  But that doesn’t matter, as she defeats her peers in a weird jungle gym / obstacle course, and becomes the next robot jock.  Then Achilles comes out of self-imposed retirement and denies her that right.  Jerk.

I’m sure anybody reading up to this point has assumed, correctly, the target audience for this picture is 12-year-old boys.  Still, I like how the script gives Johnson a bold character with agency. When Achilles tries to swipe from under her the opportunity to fight, she drugs and impersonates him.  She even puts up a good fight in the arena until being knocked unconscious, at which point Achilles runs out onto the field, saving both her and Alaska.  I couldn’t help but feel for Johnson, who has been denied glory.  I’m also not sure how residents of Alaska may have felt, knowing their state was put up for grabs.

The robots are astonishing, and there is a great deal of inventiveness in their design.  It’s like you can feel the giddiness of the effects people as they invented new weapons.  The bad guy’s has a retractable mace, and fists that can be hydraulically pumped like a jackhammer or which can launch off their arms like a missile.  Our hero’s has tank treads in its legs, and the entire structure can fold down into a tank.  Both can fly into space and do battle there.  For kids who had Transformers toys, it must have been like watching things from your imagination during play becoming fully-realized on the screen.

But I’m hoping there were few boys who imagined their Transformers (or GoBots, for those who were around back in the day) having a giant chainsaw as basically a penis.  Sure, there was a similar development in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, except that wasn’t a children’s movie.  Well, maybe it was in Japan.  I don’t know.

There is a lot to like in Robot Jox, if you let yourself enjoy it.  It definitely doesn’t “crash and burn”, a catchphrase everybody tells each other here in the spirit of “break a leg”.  Love it or hate it, I can at least promise you will not be bored at any point in the runtime.  In my own humble opinion, Robot Jox rox.

Dir: Stuart Gordon, of Re-animator fame

Starring Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo

Watched as part of Arrow Video’s blu-ray box set Empire of Screams: Enter the Video Store